NEW DELHI – As dawn broke on Tuesday, the banks of the Yamuna river in the Indian capital was deserted save for a couple of men who braved the early morning chill and shaved their heads, a Hindu ritual in India following a parent’s death, and took a dip in the dark hued water of the river, one of India’s major rivers and once a lifeline of its capital, but also one of its most polluted despite decades of expensive cleaning campaigns.
The river, a mass of white toxic foam, as waste from ritual bathing, industrial and agricultural runoff, as well as untreated sewage are dumped into it daily, is now frequently described as a dead river or a sewer.
“The river is too polluted, but I don’t think people who come here think about it that much because most of them are not so aware,” Prashant Prasad, 34, who had come to the river for rituals with his family told EFE.
The 1,376 kilometers (855 miles) long river that flows through the Indian capital and the neighboring city of Agra of Taj Mahal fame, is considered to be one of the most sacred rivers in India and hence is a popular destination for Indians, especially during Hindu festivals, whose rituals are often intrinsically linked to flowing water.
The pollution in the river began to escalate alarmingly in the 70s due to greater industrial activities and intensive pesticide usage, environment expert Manoj Misra, who since 2013 has obtained several court rulings in favor of the river’s protection, told EFE.
Ever since 2002, after the construction of a dam 200 kilometers to the north of Delhi, when 99 percent of the river’s water was diverted to two irrigation canals, the river has been dead and devoid of aquatic life, added Misra.
In 2015, India’s National Green Tribunal had also described the Yamuna as a sewer, adding that decades of efforts, including three recovery projects under the Yamuna Action Plan that cost some 420 million euros ($497 million), failed to improve the quality of the river’s water.
Minister of State for Water Resources Vijay Goel, in a written response to the Parliament in July, had attributed the pollution to inadequate flow “due to over extraction of surface and groundwater and discharge of untreated effluent.”
He had added his ministry was providing assistance to states, through which the river flows, in a phased manner since 1993 under the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP).
The first two phases of the Yamuna Action Plan were launched in 1993 and 2003, with a budget of around 200 million euros, and the third phase was started in 2013 with a budget of around 220 million euros.
The construction of water treatment plants and sewers had formed an important part of these plans, but in most cases the construction of the plants never took off.
The Delhi Jal Board, a government agency responsible for managing sewage in the Indian capital, had told the NGT in October that they were yet to start the construction of 17 water treatment plants that were part of the latest clean campaign.
Alok K. Sikka, India Representative at the International Water Management Institute, told EFE that the problem is that only 46 percent of Delhi has a sewage system and plants which receive the wastes function at barely 40 percent of their capacities.
The remaining 54 percent ends up in septic tanks before they are recovered and dumped directly into the Yamuna, said Krishna Rao, another member of IWMI.
The pollution in the Yamuna river is directly linked to a lack of toilets in the country and can be addressed with the help of the flagship Clean India Campaign that aims to install a toilet in every Indian home, he added.